I’m writing today from a place of frustration and aggravation. I am writing because I am exhausted by having bisexual people be disregarded, ignored, and redefined. I believe we can do better to support and care for our bisexual community.
I was at a training recently coordinated by a national organization for educators about creating LGBTQIA+ inclusive school environments. While most of the training was helpful, the organizers shared definitions of terminology for use with elementary students. Among those was this definition of bisexual: People who love people of two genders.
This definition is completely wrong and it is harmful to bisexual people.
A simple and correct definition of bisexual is: People who love people of more than one gender. This definition aligns with community definitions from organizations including the Bisexual Resource Center, Bisexual Organizing Project, and BiNet USA. Why does the definition matter? My experience has been that there have been attempts to more narrowly define bisexual people.
Why did the incorrect definition make me so upset? I’ve been self-identifying as bisexual for over twenty years. I recognize my gender as genderqueer. The number of genders I acknowledge and have loved has never been something I’ve needed to restrict to any particular number for myself nor for acceptance in the bisexual community. The idea of there being a number of genders or a limit to my capacity to love within those genders is as nonsensical to me as proposing that there’s some number limit possible for how many or what kinds of cupcakes I might want to eat. Hearing and seeing that definition of bisexual left me feeling like my story, my community, and my life was being erased. I was very hurt that this incorrect and harmful definition clearly written without bisexual community input was being transmitted to elementary schools across the country.
It’s important to point out that there is nothing wrong with the pansexual identity or the definition of pansexual given at the training: People who love people of any gender. I radically support individuals making and choosing their own terms. I also recognize that the decision to self-identify as bisexual or pansexual is deeply personal, can be fluid, and may also be informed by a person’s race, class, gender, age, or where they live. This applies similarly to any of the other more than fifty identity labels that may be used by people who love others of more than one gender. I use the word bi+ for this big umbrella that includes bisexual, polysexual, omnisexual, and many more.
It’s also critical to acknowledge the commonalities of experience among bi+ people, using whatever personal identities fit them best. This matters in making policies and programs that support the needs of bi+ people. We need a larger understanding of who is in the bi+ community in order to effectively advocate for bi+ people.
According to MAP’s 2016 report on Bisexual people, Bi+ folks experience more erasure and invisibility than straight and homosexual peers. They are less likely to be “out.” Bi+ people in the MAP study, on average, reported poorer outcomes than those who are gay or lesbian. Of particular note, for example, is the very high rate of sexual violence experienced by bi+ girls and women. Bi+ community leaders point to bi+ erasure and harmful myths about bisexual people as contributing greatly to these poor outcomes.
To move forward, I urge accepting the many different labels that LGBTQIA+ individuals identify with regardless of how similar their definitions may sound. The purpose of these identities is, I believe, to create ever more possibilities for understanding ourselves and others. I urge community definitions and listening to those who identify with those terms. Let bisexual be defined by the bi+ community for our community!Clark Hoelscher, Ph.D., they/them is an educator and community leader in St. Paul, Minnesota and a member of GLSEN’s Educator Advisory Committee.